Chapter One: The Stranger

 

 

The Present

 

“ADRIEN.”

The voice sounded familiar. Adrien looked around to see who was speaking, but saw no one.

Laughter. Then: “You won’t find me out here.”

Who are you? Adrien hated games. He was too old for them.

“You know who I am, Adrien.”

Adrien’s head jerked forward as he woke with a start. It took him a moment to remember where he was: Jean Lambert’s plane. On their way to the Council meeting in Paris.

Pelletier.

He glanced out the window. A sea of white clouds danced below them, obscuring what he guessed was ocean. His head throbbed. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and pulled his phone from his pocket. “How much longer?” he asked Jean, who sat next to him.

“Less than an hour.”

The attendant brought a tray of food and set it on the table between them. Adrien poured himself a small cup of thick black coffee. Maybe the jolt of caffeine would get rid of his headache.

“What do you have in mind?” Adrien asked Jean. Of course it might have been better if they’d discussed plans before Jean knocked him out. Then again, Adrien would have refused to come with Jean if given a choice.

“We will attend the meeting.”

Adrien nearly spat out a mouthful of coffee. “You’re joking. We’ll never get near the building, let alone make it inside.”

“They will permit us entry,” Jean replied, nonplussed. “Giovanetti intends to become the next regent if Pelletier doesn’t appear. He won’t risk alienating Council members sympathetic to the vampires’ concerns.”

“You really think Pelletier will show?” Adrien swirled his half-finished coffee around. Over the past century, Jean had tried to convince Adrien that Pelletier would appear at other Council meetings. Adrien had flatly refused to attend them, and in the end, Jean had been mistaken. Still, Adrien would humor Jean. He understood that Jean, like him, needed a reason to believe they’d find Nicolas.

“I believe he will. He’s always enjoyed putting on a show,” Jean replied with obvious disdain. “How much more grandiose an entrance can he make than to reappear after one hundred years? And in the Hall of Hunters, no less?”

“He’ll be ready for us.”

Jean nodded. “No doubt he has a plan.”

Adrien released a long breath. “And we have none.”

Jean frowned. “Roland will come.”

“That’s your plan?” Adrien stood up, careful not to hit his head on the low bulkhead, and ran a hand through his hair. Having his erstwhile teacher at the Council meeting would certainly help should trouble arise, but in the face of so many potential foes, it wouldn’t guarantee their safety.

“Unfortunately it’s the best I have to offer.”

Adrien had nothing better to suggest. After years of searching, he’d almost made his peace with losing Nicolas. Almost. He would have given up looking for him decades before if the niggle at the back of his brain didn’t keep reminding him of the hole in his heart.

He looked out the window again as they began to descend. It had been seventy years since he’d visited Paris. He’d continued to perform his duty to the Council in the intervening years, dispatching vampires, but he’d received his orders first as telegraphs and telegrams, then later through texts. Adrien often wondered if the Council required his services only so that Pelletier’s cronies might keep tabs on him. Years spent chasing after Pelletier to find Nicolas had yielded nothing but dead ends. A grainy photo he thought might be Nicolas in a newspaper, a glimpse of someone on the street he thought might be Pelletier. Never anything concrete.

Adrien watched as the airplane touched down at the private airport outside Paris. More than ever he was convinced their presence at the Council meeting was a waste of time. Perhaps worse than a waste of time. Dangerous. Still, he’d grown tired of arguing.

A limousine met them at the airport. Adrien paid little attention to where they were going until the buildings and spires of Paris disappeared into the distance and he realized they were traveling away from the center of the city.

“Where to?” he asked.

“Château Rousseau.”

Jean wore a grim expression. Years before, Adrien might have taken solace in the fact that Jean, too, had his ghosts. Now he understood all too well the toll ghosts could exact on those they haunted.

Over the years Adrien had managed to piece together some of the bloody history that had rekindled the war between the great vampire clans. He knew Blaise Rousseau and Jean had been lovers. He’d also heard that Jean had murdered Blaise’s brother and was responsible for the death of Blaise’s parents. Adrien knew few of the actual details, and Jean refused to speak of it. Eventually Adrien had stopped asking.

The limousine pulled up to a large wrought-iron gate, which opened automatically after a few moments, and they started down the long drive to the château.

The peace that had cost both Adrien and Jean so dearly had been a lasting one. Although it had taken time, the Rousseau and Lambert Clans were now allies. Jean’s suggestion that they stay here was a testament to this new relationship between the clans, but Adrien guessed Jean was as troubled as he to be back once again.

As they climbed out of the car, Blaise Rousseau stood in the middle of the entryway, green eyes focused and bright. His youthful face had not changed over the years, although his eyes shone with a wisdom born of nearly a century as leader of the Rousseau Clan, a position he had assumed after his uncle, Reynaud Rousseau, left in disgrace.

As always, seeing Blaise caused Adrien’s chest to tighten. He saw so much of Nicolas in Blaise’s face. Except for their eyes—Nicolas’s were brown—they might have passed for twins.

Jean offered Blaise his hand. Though Jean’s demeanor remained calm, Adrien saw him clench his jaw. Blaise’s smile appeared just as strained, although when he moved to shake Jean’s hand, he rested his left hand briefly on Jean’s forearm in an unexpected gesture of friendship. He then approached Adrien, but instead of a handshake, he embraced Adrien warmly, as one might embrace a long-lost brother.

“Welcome to my home, gentlemen. It’s been a long time.” Blaise gestured them into the sitting room while the servants took away what little luggage they had. “I’m sorry my sister isn’t here today. She has her own residence in the Sixth Arrondissement.” His expression grew wistful. “She joins me at the castle only infrequently.” He motioned them to be seated. “Cognac?”

“Thank you.” Jean sat so straight in his chair, he reminded Adrien of a statue.

“Yes, please,” Adrien added.

Blaise filled two glasses with cognac and offered them to Jean and Adrien. Adrien inhaled the warm scent of the alcohol and nearly sighed into his glass, happy to have something to ease the tension in his body that being back in this place caused. The castle reminded Adrien of Nicolas. He’d spent wonderful days at Nicolas’s side here, but it was also where he’d lost Nicolas.

“So,” Blaise continued as he sipped his drink, “much as I’m pleased you chose to visit, I realize you’re not here to pay a social call.”

“We will attend the Council meeting the day after tomorrow,” Jean said. “The Council intends to take up the question of who will succeed Pelletier as regent.”

Blaise’s expression darkened. “Do you think it’s wise for you to go?”

“I asked the same question,” Adrien said with a chuckle. “But Jean believes Pelletier may appear.”

“And if he does?”

“It might give us a clue about where he has Nicolas,” Jean explained.

“Jean thinks Pelletier will dangle Nicolas as some sort of bait.” Adrien rubbed the back of his neck.

“Bait?” Blaise asked.

“Jean believes all of this is about me.” Adrien ran a hand through his hair and this time failed to stifle a yawn.

“We can speak of it later, Adrien,” Blaise said with a knowing smile. He stood and put his hand on Adrien’s shoulder. “For now, why don’t you get some rest? One of the servants will show you to your room.”

Adrien had barely slept in weeks, and he couldn’t afford to be exhausted in the unlikely event Pelletier did appear at the meeting. He nodded, then said, “Thank you for the hospitality, Blaise. It’s good to see you again.”

 

 

BLAISE TURNED to Jean after Adrien disappeared. “What’s this about Pelletier wanting Adrien?”

“Just that. Pelletier might have wanted Nicolas at one time, but now I believe he’s set his sights on Adrien.” Jean sighed and shook his head. “Adrien’s mother was murdered by a vampire when Adrien was a child. She died defending him. I’ve long suspected that vampire was in Pelletier’s employ.”

“But it’s been more than a hundred years since Pelletier disappeared with Nicolas,” Blaise protested. “If he wanted Adrien, why wait so long?”

“A hundred years is nothing for an immortal,” Jean answered. “Nothing, and everything, in this case.”

“Everything to Adrien.”

“Yes. It’s quite clever, if you think about it.” Jean had thought about this more than he cared to admit. “Pelletier knows that the years will take their toll on Adrien. He’s chased Pelletier all over the world since he took Nicolas. Pelletier lets him get close, then vanishes again. And although Adrien’s powers may have grown with time….”

Blaise pressed his lips together and frowned. “How is he, really?”

“Adrien?”

Blaise nodded.

“As well as can be expected. He’s spent the last century looking for Nicolas. He’s discouraged, heartbroken….”

“As are you.”

Jean took a long sip of his drink in an effort to mask his emotions. Blaise’s presence awakened many of the same feelings in him as the loss of Nicolas. Grief. Heartache. Loneliness. And although Jean’s responsibilities as leader of the Lambert Clan meant that he and Blaise were in regular contact, they had only seen each other once since Nicolas’s disappearance. The fault was Jean’s own. He had failed both Blaise and Nicolas, in the end. Blaise had every right to keep him at arm’s length.

“I’m to blame for not protecting Nicolas. I chose this path for him. I should have considered the danger.”

“Adrien blames himself as well.” Blaise shook his head and let out a long breath. “This self-loathing accomplishes nothing. Nicolas wouldn’t have wanted this for either of you.”

Blaise was right, of course. It had taken Jean nearly a century to see his folly in letting Blaise go for what it was: penance. But perhaps now enough time had passed that he could say what he should have said back then.

“I too grieve the loss of Nicolas,” Blaise said softly.

“I know.” Jean finished his cognac and set the glass down on the table between them. For a few moments, Jean hesitated, unsure of how to broach the subject after so long. He knew he must do this. He could not in good conscience chastise Adrien for his self-pity when he was guilty of the same.

“There is something else I wish to discuss,” he said at last.

“Of course.” Blaise pretended to focus his attention on his drink, but Jean suspected he knew the topic and was steeling himself for what Jean might say.

“It’s been more than a hundred years since you learned the truth,” Jean began. “I should have spoken to you about it. I have no excuse but that Nicolas’s disappearance affected me more than I was willing to admit. But lately I’ve been thinking about the past. Perhaps far more than I should. I’ve been thinking about you, and whether we—”

Someone knocked on the sitting room door.

“Excuse me,” Blaise said as he went to open the door.

“Blaise, I think—” The man who entered the sitting room stopped when he saw Jean seated there. “I’m so sorry,” he added, appearing flustered. “I didn’t realize you had company. I can come back later.”

“It’s all right,” Blaise said as he gestured the man inside. “It’s my fault for keeping you waiting. I should have told you I’d be delayed.”

“Are you sure?” the man asked with a glance in Jean’s direction.

“It’s quite all right,” Jean put in.

Blaise shifted on his feet. He clearly hadn’t anticipated Jean and the newcomer would meet. Jean schooled his features. His conversation with Blaise would have to wait. He told himself he hadn’t really believed he and Blaise might rectify what had happened years before, but he’d hoped he might use the opportunity to rekindle their friendship.

There’s no rush.

“Jean,” Blaise said, smiling at the newcomer, “this is Rogier Chastain. Rogier, Jean Lambert.”

Jean stood and shook Rogier’s hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Rogier said. “I hope I haven’t interrupted anything.” Handsome and slightly taller than Blaise, Rogier wore jeans with a white button-down shirt and a leather jacket. Dressed for an afternoon outing—one Jean and Adrien had obviously interrupted.

“Not at all,” Jean said. “Blaise and I are—” He paused and smiled at Blaise. “—old friends. We’ll have plenty of time to catch up later.”

“Rogier’s in town for the Council meeting,” Blaise explained as he took Rogier’s hand. No doubt the gesture was meant for both Rogier and Jean. Jean knew Blaise well enough that he’d have understood without it. Blaise had moved on. And why shouldn’t he? Jean had done nothing to attempt a reconciliation, even though Blaise knew the truth of his parents’ deaths.

“I figured I’d take advantage of Blaise’s hospitality.” Rogier gazed at Blaise with affection. “With my work, we don’t get to spend as much time together as I’d like.”

“You’re a hunter.” He’d stated the obvious, but Jean felt it easier to slip back into comfortable formality than face his own petty jealousy.

Rogier nodded and Jean offered him a pleasant smile. Then he turned to Blaise and added, “I should get some rest. Tomorrow will be a long day. I thank you for your hospitality. It was good meeting you, Rogier.”